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JESSICA ZAFRA | Trapped in a Beijing metaphor

Chinese currency. FILE PHOTO
The online news portal of TV5

The day after ASEAN foreign ministers took a swipe at Beijing and then took it back because the Malaysians didn’t want to offend Beijing, I found myself in a taxi in Beijing, in the middle of a quarrel that started over nothing. The quarrel was instigated by the taxi driver, compounded by our inability to understand each other’s language, and aggravated by everyone’s tendency to start yelling as if turning up the volume would bring clarity to the issue.

In short, I had landed in a metaphor.

My two colleagues and I had gone to the Circle Market to buy souvenirs and Mao kitsch. The doorman at our hotel had called a taxi for us. It was past 6 p.m., rush hour, and the doorman said it might be difficult for us to get a taxi back to the hotel. The fare to Circle Market was 13 Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY, the exchange rate today being PHP7.07 to CNY1).

Circle Market looks like Virra Mall in the 90s. I was kicking myself for overpaying for a Vladimir Putin T-shirt for my sister that I could probably get cheaper in Greenhills, but I was in a hurry. Also, I just wanted the seller to get out of my face. We got our shopping done in an hour. There was a taxi on the curb, so we piled in and showed him the hotel card. So far, everything was fine.

A few blocks from the hotel, our companion, who was the designated wallet, noted that the fare on the meter was already CNY28, more than twice what we’d paid earlier. The route had not seemed longer this time around. “Maybe there’s a rush hour surcharge?” I said, not wanting to assume that we were being cheated, though the evidence was right there. Also I did not feel like having an argument in sign language.

A block from the hotel, the taxi driver stopped, pointed to the meter, and said, “Give me 100.”

“But I have exact change,” our wallet pointed out, holding out a 10, 5s, and 1s.

“Give me 100,” the taxi driver repeated. He waved some bills in his hand, indicating that he would make change.

“Maybe he wants to get rid of his smaller bills?” I said, stupidly. It really was not a good time for my anger management to kick in.

Our wallet handed the taxi driver a CNY100 bill. He rubbed it, held it up to the light, then shook his head vehemently. “Fake!” he shouted, and shoved it back at her. “Give me 100!” Being yelled at in a foreign country in an enclosed space by a taxi driver who looks like a heavy in a kung fu movie is not an experience I would recommend to tourists in China.

“But our producer got that from a money-changer in Binondo,” our wallet said, “And we’ve never had complaints about fake bills.”

“Give me 100! Local money!” the taxi driver yelled.

She gave him another CNY100. He rubbed it, held it to the light, and again pronounced it fake. “Give me local money! 100!”

“We have no more money,” I said, and told our wallet to close her bag. I tried to open the door, but it was locked.

“I have a 50,” said our wallet, who by this time was near panic.

“Local money! 100!” the taxi driver yelled.

“We only have 50,” our other colleague said, calmly.

“Local money! 100!”

“Take it all! Keep the change!” said our wallet with a flair for drama.

“Are you nuts?” I said. “Give us change!”

Finally the taxi driver took the CNY 50 bill and handed her the change. Grumbling, he drove to the corner, stopped across the street from the hotel, and unlocked the doors.

“Take us to the hotel,” our colleague said. The taxi driver ignored him completely.

“Let’s get out before he locks the doors again,” I said. I called him horrible names in other languages, which was futile because they weren’t in Chinese. We got out and the taxi sped off.

“I’m going to report him,” our colleague said, walking up to the concierge’s desk. Our wallet was thanking various saints that we had not been kidnapped and mugged.

Our colleague gave the concierge the license plate number of the taxi driver. Then our wallet showed him the two CNY100 bills that were supposed to be fake. The concierge rubbed the bills in his hand. “These are fake,” he confirmed.

“They can’t be fake!” our wallet cried, citing their provenance once more.

“These bills are fake,” the concierge repeated. Later I found that fake CNY100 bills are all over the place. The locals can spot them instantly by their texture. A friend of mine once got fake CNY100 bills from a bank in the airport.

Our Chinese currency had been obtained from a moneychanger in Binondo, and we’d been using it for the last five days. No one had ever complained of fakes until that evening. Maybe there were fake bills in the bundle, but that was highly unlikely. Then it occurred to me that the fake 100s may have come from the taxi driver himself. That would explain why he insisted on our paying in CNY100 bills. This would also explain why he refused to approach the hotel driveway. While scrutinizing the bills, he would have had the opportunity to switch the real ones to fakes. Meanwhile we were distracted by his shouting. He knew that since we were on his turf, did not speak his language, and did not want trouble, he had the advantage. It’s the way of the bully.

As for us passengers, we represented different approaches to conflict resolution. I wanted to be left alone; I have little faith in institutions. Our wallet didn’t want to get hurt. Our colleague believed in taking the matter to the proper authorities. In the meantime, we’re out 200 yuan.